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Sometimes, Experts Say, There’s a Fine Line Between Science and Advocacy
Openness is a core principle of science, and scientists who work for government agencies should be able to speak freely and honestly about their research results and what they mean, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told a 22 June gathering of the D.C. Science Writers Association.
Agency heads may have good reasons for asking their scientists to avoid making policy pronouncements, Leshner said, but they must be careful not to stifle scientific findings for partisan purposes. That point was echoed by Andrew Revkin, an environment writer for the New York Times, and David Goldston, majority chief of staff for the House Committee on Science. They also spoke at the evening Capitol Hill event on “Scientific Openness and Federally Sponsored Research.”
Leshner, who helped draft a recent statement by National Science Board on communications policies for government agencies, said he agreed with the Board’s conclusion that “a clear distinction should be made between communicating professional research results and data versus the interpretation of data and results in a context that seeks to influence, through the injection of personal viewpoints, public opinion or the formulation of public policy.”
It is not easy to walk the line, Leshner acknowledged. “I’m fond of saying it’s unfortunate that scientists are also people,” he said. “It’s very hard for even the best scientists to keep from adding their own personal values to their fact presentations.” But, Leshner said, “it is important for scientists to present and defend their data while leaving the ultimate policymaking to the policymakers.”
In January, climate scientist James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City charged that NASA officials had restricted his comments to journalists on global warming issues. He said political appointees at NASA headquarters had demanded to review his lectures and papers in advance and have senior agency managers take his place in interviews with reporters.
Revkin, who wrote about Hansen’s concerns, recounted the episode for the science writers group, whose members include reporters, editors, freelancers and public information officers from the Washington area. Revkin said one of the heroes of the Hansen episode was Leslie McCarthy, a NASA public affairs officer, who spoke to him on the record about an incident in which a public affairs official and political appointee, George Deutsch, had told her his job was to “make the president look good.” McCarthy also said a request by National Public Radio to interview Hansen had been canceled by Deutsch, who McCarthy said had described the radio network as “the most liberal” media outlet in the nation.
Following reporting of Hansen’s comments—and the fallout from them—in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other news media, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin issued a new policy “committed to a culture of openness with the media and the public.”
Goldston noted that his boss, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, had moved quickly to defend Hansen and seek clarification on NASA’s public affairs policies from Griffin. Boehlert, a moderate who has received good marks from environmentalists, also took exception last year to what he considered a misguided and illegitimate House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation into the personal and financial records of three scientists who wrote a controversial climate change study. He also said having variation among agencies is generally a strength of the U.S. system.
Goldston, who will be leaving his post at the end of the year when Boehlert retires, said that politicians and the lay public tend to view scientific research as an objective realm that is above politics. But he said he fears the contentious policy debates over global warming and other issues could undermine science’s position in society.
Revkin argued that science is a self-correcting process and said the more information available from federal scientists the better. He also cautioned that journalists and others need to keep sight of the broad consensus that exists in the middle ground on scientific issues such as global warming. He said he has taken flak from both ends of the spectrum—the environmental left and climate-change skeptics—over some of the pieces he has written.
While the National Science Board said federal agencies should be allowed to keep track of what their scientists are saying in the public arena, it recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy develop a common set of principles to encourage open communication of science and discourage “the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of research findings.”
Goldston, while backing that sentiment, said he thought it was “dumb” to leave the writing of the guidelines to the White House, given the widespread concern that it is to blame for efforts to inhibit open discussion of research data by some government scientists.
As a practical matter, how can scientists and agency heads maintain the sometimes murky line between dissemination of research data and policy advocacy? Leshner, who served as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse before joining AAAS, mentioned two examples from his own experience as an agency head. In the late 1990s, he said, many advocates wanted the federal government to lift a ban on needle exchange programs. Research studies suggested the exchanges can be effective, when used as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention program, in helping reduce spread of infectious disease among intravenous drug users.
Leshner backed the lifting of the ban, but there soon developed a debate within the Clinton administration. Some policy makers wanted to keep the ban for purely political reasons, a move Leshner said he might not like but could understand. Another group, composed of nonscientists, tried to discredit the scientific studies on needle exchange.
“That made me crazy, and we set about discrediting the discreditors,” Leshner said. Though the ban was not lifted, “we did preserve the integrity of science and make sure that people knew the decision was a political, not a science-based one,” he said.
Leshner also cited the example of medical marijuana. As head of NIDA, he had to resist calls by advocates on both sides of the debate to endorse a viewpoint not supported by the full weight of the evidence. “People constantly wanted me to endorse one so-called clinical position or another—it’s great for glaucoma or it rots your brain,” Leshner said. “We tried to walk a line that stuck to what we knew and didn’t know.”
When and how should scientists be required to clear their contacts with the media? There are no simple answers for agency heads, Leshner said. “I always wanted people to share their expertise and findings freely,” he explained, “but I also felt the need to have a good sense of what they’d say.” He wanted to be sure his scientists didn’t step over the line into policy advocacy, he said. But just as importantly, Leshner said, “I didn’t want our scientists saying dumb things or exaggerated things in public. And it does matter more when a government scientist says something than when a scientist at some obscure college somewhere says the same thing.”
27 June 2006